It ain't over till it's over! Well, now it's over. Officially. That sucks.
Close, but no cigar. The Steelers held up their end, defeating their division rival Cleveland Browns by two touchdowns on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the Steel City. Sadly, their early season struggles came back to bite them in their proverbial backsides as they didn't control their own destiny. They needed plenty of help to get in the tournament, and they didn't get quite enough.
I am always disappointed when a Steelers season comes to its inevitable end. The degree of my disappointment varies by the circumstances of the ending. If the Steelers win the Super Bowl, I am sad to see another magical season come to an end. If the Steelers give up 40+ points in a playoff loss, which has become the norm it seems, I am left frustrated, and wondering why that side of the ball keeps failing to show up in those situations.
Then you have seasons like 2022, where the Steelers fail to qualify for the postseason. Turns out my personal feelings are very circumstantial in these situations.
Truthfully, since 2018, I have been underwhelmed at the end of each season, playoffs or not. That's because the Steelers were always trending in the wrong direction at the close of each of those seasons. A team overly dependent on their star power, and the star power getting older by the minute. Top heavy, out of balance rosters, both financially and talent distribution. No real sustainable improvements to speak of, as each team would peak around midseason, then endure a downward trajectory to finish the season.
That all changed in 2022. The Steelers actually started a youth movement of sorts in 2021, out of pure necessity, but this season the rebuilding began in earnest. The first round selection of Kenny Pickett revealed the Steelers were fully committed.
The Steelers could have jumped into the veteran quarterback madness that possessed franchises like the Denver Broncos and Browns, or tried to squeeze out another season or two out of a has-been or a never-was, but the Steelers held true to form.
Build through the draft, be frugal in free agency, and stay patient. Resist the temptation to mortgage the future for the present. Instead, the Steelers did their homework, and selected Kenny Pickett. In hindsight, how many of those other teams wish they would have done the same? Not necessarily select Pickett, but commit to a young prospect, rather than go all-in on one massive investment.
The 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers have left me excited about what's to come. They showed remarkable improvements and personnel growth over the course of the season, and were definitely trending in the right direction at season's end. This time they peaked at the right time, which is truly refreshing.
If the Steelers enjoy a fruitful offseason, I fully expect them to be competing for the AFC North crown as early as next season. Rivals beware.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Rebuilding clarity
As previously mentioned, the Steelers triumphantly stride into the offseason fresh off a 4 game winning streak. Every playoff participant's season ends with a loss unless you hoist the Lombardi Trophy. On the bright side, even though they just missed the playoffs, the 2022 season doesn't end on a sour note for the Steelers. It ends on a high note, filled with hope for the future. That type of momentum should not be dismissed or downplayed.
Honestly, the Steelers have more clarity entering this offseason than any in recent memory. The Steelers fully realize it's time to rebuild both foundations, both in free agency and the draft, although it's debatable which foundation needs the most attention. For my money, it's the defensive line, based on age and depth alone, but both lines certainly need addressed.
Although the Steelers were the most expensive defense in the NFL this season, and the least expensive offense, the defense has the biggest holes to fill. That's why I anticipate a defensive focused offseason, especially in the draft.
The Steelers need to get younger and more talented across the defense, so they can grow and compliment the Steelers extremely young offense. The time is now, as the Steelers look to capitalize with their potential franchise quarterback early in his rookie deal. Build a championship caliber roster, then focus your salary cap towards keeping your core intact, and acquiring interchangeable pieces.
Even a casual observer of the NFL can see that the Steelers are a young and talented roster trending in the right direction. That makes the upcoming offseason even more important for the process. We have seen teams appear on the verge of contending status before, only to regress the following season. The 2020 Cleveland Browns and the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars teams immediately come to mind.
The Steelers can't take their eyes off the prize, or their foot off the gas, if they want to hoist the Lombardi Trophy anytime soon.
Steelers Stock Trending Down: AFC North rivals
You almost feel sorry for the fan bases of the Ravens, Bengals, and Browns. They spent the offseason gloating that the bane of their existence, Steelers future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, had finally retired. Roethlisberger had dominated the division like no other, especially the two franchises from his home state of Ohio. Their 18-year nightmare scenario appeared to be no more.
The incessant trash talk from the aforementioned fanbases all season could have been annoying if it wasn't so laughable. Plenty of unwarranted bravado from franchises that don't belong in the same conversation with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The AFC North owns 8 Lombardi Trophies between the four franchises. The Steelers have 6, and the Ravens have 2. That's it. Maybe the Bengals will win the Super Bowl this season, as they appear to have a championship caliber roster, but they haven't won nothing yet.
Circumstances sure have changed during the 2022 NFL season. The Bengals began the year as Super Bowl contenders, and they have lived up to those expectations. They are going to be tough to beat, but they have to overcome their history of coming up short in the end. 3-time Super Bowl runner up.
The Baltimore Ravens were considered the Bengals’ biggest threat for the AFC North crown going into the season. The Ravens have been healthier than last season overall, but have struggled to end the regular season with Lamar Jackson dealing with a nagging knee injury. Jackson should be back for the playoffs, which is good, because the Ravens offense is anemic without his unique abilities. Nobody knows if the Ravens can win a Lombardi with Lamar, but they definitely can't win one without him, and he is due a gigantic pay raise, of the roster defining variety.
The Cleveland Browns are nothing if not consistent. They overpaid for a perceived dual threat quarterback who just so happens to have never won anything of note, has tons of off the field baggage, and hadn't played a meaningful NFL game in two years. Plus they doubled down with a guaranteed contract. That's one way to get a franchise quarterback to come to Cleveland. Maybe the only way.
The rest of the division was undoubtedly planning on having a little fun at the Steelers expense this season, but the Steelers had different plans. The Steelers plethora of young talent went .500 in the division, splitting the season series with each rival. Definitely not the bloodbath that their fan bases were hoping for.
Now the Steelers look like a franchise one fruitful offseason away from possibly reaching contender status yet again.
Don't look now, but the Steelers division rival's reoccurring nightmare appears far from over.